The Malta Independent 16 August 2022, Tuesday

Was the 7 Giugno a real revolution?

Noel Grima Sunday, 19 June 2022, 09:28 Last update: about 3 months ago

1919: Consequences of Imperial Conceit. Four case studies; Author: Joseph M. Pirotta; Publisher: Midsea Books / 2022; Pages: 591pp

We Maltese have always celebrated the 7th day of June with a certain reverential air, even before we took to call it by its Italian name - Sette Giugno - and even before it became one of our national days.

But then as years passed and as our memories of what happened in 1919 became more detailed so too the interpretation of what really happened started to veer this way and that.

In 1970, Henry Frendo concluded the events of 1919 constituted the Maltese revolution. There have been other books about the event but none joined the Revolution thesis as explicitly as Frendo.

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Now, in a hefty book, Professor Joseph M. Pirotta discredits the revolution theory and explains why.

For starters a revolution requires revolutionary leaders. But the four victims of 7/6 were no revolutionary heroes but unfortunate victims who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

The most heroic was Manwel Attard who saw a British soldier bayoneting a man and loudly demanded by what right he was shedding Maltese blood, whereupon he was shot.

Perhaps the most unlucky was Guzeppi Bajada, a Gozitan, who was in Valletta to get a passport to immigrate to the United States and got caught up in the crowd.

Lorenzo Dyer was an onlooker standing on the opposite side of the street where the Chronicle was printed. He was hit by one shot fired by the excitable and badly led British troops.

The last victim, equally unfortunate, was Karmenu Abela who was trying to call his son who was with the mob ransacking Palazzo Ferreira, to come out, when he was bayonetted. He died in hospital a week later.

There may have been other victims who died later in hospital but right from the beginning these four were the ones mentioned as national heroes and in fact the tomb at the Addolorata Cemetery carries just these four names and none other.

The "Maltese Revolution" theorists generally claim that the self-government granted by the British soon after the 7/6 riots was a direct effect of the riots.

Pirotta explains how nothing could be further from the facts.

One must consider the events in Malta in the context of what was happening in the other British domains around the world. He explains, with a wealth of details, what was happening in Ireland, India and Egypt in these same years.

After the end of the First World War, the British Empire, which was based on a rock-solid conviction that the sun would never set on it, found itself facing populations who wanted independence and self-determination and huge and bloody riots ensued.

In all these cases the British response was to fire on the protesters and hang the consequences.

In Ireland the nationalists planned a huge Easter rising on Easter Monday 1919 and, although the numbers that took part were initially lower than expected, they caused damage and mayhem in central Dublin.

The British imposed martial law and more than 450 people, the majority civilians, were killed in the five days it took to bring the rebellion under control.

India was the richest of the British possessions east of Suez but the Indians had long been campaigning for freedom. As early as 1806 there were anti-British mutinies, put down by the British with force. The Indians, both Hindu and Muslims, came to believe that the British aimed to convert them all, even suspecting that the cartridges they had to lick were impregnated with pork bits. On the other hand there were some anti-European uprisings. The press in Britain carried increasingly lurid accounts of rape of British women and girls and demanded retribution. This led directly to the terrible famine caused in part by nature but in major part too by British stinginess in allocating resources to counter the famine.

Far worse was to come. Following a riot in the holy city of Amritsar, a British officer coincidentally with the same surname of one of the Sette Giugno martyrs, Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, took matters into his hands and callously caused what became known as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre where his troops opened fire on an innocuous Hindu gathering and kept firing until they ran out of ammunition, killing up to 547 persons "to give them a lesson".

This was accompanied by other acts of retribution - electricity and water were cut off, students forced into a 16 mile daily walk, flogging became rampant on the streets and whenever Indians encountered Europeans they had to dismount and salaam. Humiliation of Indians became rife - Indians, who travelled in the street where an English headmistress was killed, had to crawl on all fours the whole length of the street.

Egypt was not a British colony but became important, along with Malta, because it preserved the link between Britain and India. As time went by, especially after the opening of the Suez Canal, Britain found itself increasingly enmeshed in the local politics of the country.

In 1919 Britain, already facing insurrection in Ireland and in India, found itself facing revolution in Egypt. Street demonstrations by students against the deportation of top politician Salad Zaghlul (to Malta) were followed by protests by lawyers, civil servants, transport and factory workers. Riots and violence followed. By May, 1,000 Egyptians and 31 British were killed.

Malta too saw an increase of public agitation. In May, striking university students protested against new rules that made a BA degree a prerequisite for reading law. The years after the end of World War I saw a dramatic increase in poverty and unemployment. There was also anger at millers blamed for profiteering and the high cost of bread. And against the collaborationists. There was also a fair amount of incitement coming from the dockyards under the influence of Manwel Dimech.

And above all there was a national campaign for home rule with the National Assembly holding the first of its meetings before Sette Giugno.

But it was not a revolution in the proper sense of the word, though the dead and the wounded undoubtedly contributed to hastening the British government to give a reduced form of self-government as from 1921. 


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